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New Orleans Police Taser, Pepper Spray Residents Seeking to Block Public Housing Demolition

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The New Orleans City Council has unanimously voted to move ahead with the demolition of 4,500 units of public housing. Under the plan, the city’s four largest public housing developments will be razed and replaced with mixed-income housing. Hundreds of people were turned away from the City Council meeting. Police shot protesters with pepper spray and tasers. We go to New Orleans to speak with two local community activists and a former SWAT commander. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryDec 20, 2007The Battle to Save New Orleans Public Housing
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are going first to New Orleans. The New Orleans City Council has unanimously voted to move ahead with the demolition of 4,500 units of public housing. Under the plan, the city’s four largest public housing developments will be razed and replaced with mixed-income housing.

On Thursday, hundreds of people were turned away from the City Council meeting. Some of the protesters were shot with pepper spray and tasered. Inside the City Council chambers, the scene turned chaotic when police began making arrests.

    PROTESTERS: Let the people in! Let the people in! Let the people in!

    PROTESTER: Let those people in! Let them in! Let them in! This is not Germany! Let those people in! Let those people in! There’s seats right there! There’s seats right there! Let those people in! What is wrong with y’all?

    PROTESTERS: Let the people in! Let the people in!

    PROTESTER: Ain’t no order until the rest our people get in here.

    PROTESTERS: Let the people in! Let the people in!

AMY GOODMAN: New Orleans police also tasered protesters inside the New Orleans City Council chambers.

    PROTESTER: They’re tasering us! They’re tasering! Stop it! Stop it!

AMY GOODMAN: Police cited fire marshal regulations to bar many protesters from attending the meeting, but many housing advocates say there were empty seats inside the council chambers. Some protesters began banging on the gates to City Hall to try to get in. They were met with pepper spray and tasers. Eyewitnesses said one woman tasered in the back collapsed in a seizure on the ground.

    PROTESTERS: Let us in now! Housing now! Let us in now! Housing now! Let us in! Let us in! Let us in! Let us in! No justice, no peace! No justice, no peace! No justice, no peace! No justice, no peace! What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now! What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now! Let us in! Let us in! Let us in!

    PROTESTER: Stop pushing my people!

    PROTESTER: [screams]

    PROTESTER: Let us in!

    POLICE OFFICER: Get back!

    PROTESTER: Let us in!

JUAN GONZALEZ: Police say at least fifteen people were arrested on Thursday. New Orleans Police Superintendent Warren Riley said the force was needed after protesters tried to tear down the gate to City Hall.

During the hearing, members of the City Council defended their decision to approve the demolition of public housing. Councilmember Shelley Midura described some of the protesters as “demagogues and terrorists.” Midura said, “The choice is to either support redevelopment by approving demolition or to reject redevelopment by denying these permits. I am choosing to support what I believe is the reasonable middle ground, a plan to replace and reform public housing.”

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by three guests right now in New Orleans. Kali Akuno is the executive director of People’s Hurricane Relief. We are also joined by Sess4-5, a community activist. And we’re joined on the telephone as well by Howard Robertson; he is a retired major with the New Orleans Police.

We turn first to Kali of Hurricane Relief. Describe what happened yesterday and why you were outside and inside the New Orleans City Council.

KALI AKUNO: Yeah, well, Amy, I was outside, because I was barred entry to the inside. They made an arbitrary decision yesterday to cut off the inside, when there were clearly seats that were still available. I was getting minute-by-minute reports as the events were starting, as the proceedings were starting, that there were still seats available, and they just made an arbitrary decision to keep those of us — there were probably about a hundred of us still outside at that particular point in time — to close the gates and to keep us outside. And from there, events just really escalated, as they particularly — as the folks who were on the inside, from what I can see — and Sess can give you a more detailed account — as the folks on the inside started advocating for us to be able to actually enter into the building.

So, you know, they made a situation of trying to control it and basically stifle and cut off any vocal dissent or opposition to their decision. We knew when we walked in, based on their comments the past several days and based on how they had been treating this issue the past two years, that we were going to lose the vote on the basis primarily of Clarkson’s new addition to the City Council and that at the very least it was going to be a four-to-three vote along racial lines. So we knew what we were walking into. And we just clearly wanted to make sure that our point was heard, that we disagree with the plan towards demolition and that we were going to stand fast and fight this through the courts and through other means as we moved forward. So they made a decision to basically shut everything down and shut everybody else down.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Sess, what was happening inside? Obviously, it was a seven-zero vote, but could you talk a little bit about what was happening inside?

SESS4-5: Well, I’ll definitely start with just the process of entering the City Council chambers. They changed the whole process for this particular vote. And, you know, upon entering the building, you know, they just made it hard for all the Africans who was coming in the gate, who was clearly identified as, you know, not supportive of demolition. And so, they took other measures of, you know, just searching people and putting you through metal detectors and just winding different people. And so, we just had problems just entering the building. You know, they closed the building — they locked the gates at 10:30, so that the proceedings started at 10:00.

AMY GOODMAN: Sess4-5, were you tasered inside?

SESS4-5: Yes, I was tasered. But just get inside the building before the proceedings started, you know, we just noticed they had a lot of seats available, and the number of Africans in there just were very few. And they just closed it off right after we entered the building. So we was asking, before they started the proceedings, to let more people in, because they had a number of seats that was identified inside of the council chambers, and clearly there are more — if you can see from the video, you know, it was — they had run all inside, all on the walls.

And so, when Reverend Sanders, you know, made a plea, after Arnie Fielkow tried to start the proceedings, he made a plea to let the people in. And that’s when everything really started, by Arnie Fielkow trying to start the meeting without properly letting all the people supporting us, you know, opposing, inside of the chambers.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Howard Robertson, you’re a retired major with the New Orleans Police Department. From what you’ve heard and seen of what happened yesterday, is this unprecedented in a City Council meeting in New Orleans?

HOWARD ROBERTSON: No, it’s not. Of course, things certainly got out of hand yesterday, but this is not the first time they’ve had trouble over this issue in the City Council chambers. And usually when things get — starting to get riled and unorderly, and they can’t hold a meeting in the normal way — if you’re familiar with the City Council meeting, people take a number, they sign a page that they want to speak in protest, and they’re allowed to get up, and there’s a time limit for each person to speak. But if people are disruptive and don’t allow the normal process to go, they ask those people to leave. Everyone’s allowed to speak that wants to.

In this particular meeting, they set a cut-off, that they were going to cut off at so many people into the building — I can’t tell you what that number was — and when they did, no one else was allowed. Now, that had nothing to do with racial lines. If you look at the video, the girl you were talking about that passed out and needed medical attention was a Caucasian female. So, I mean, there were a lot of people there protesting, which they certainly have a right to do.

I mean, I can’t speak for the council, but I think the council did listen to what they had to say, they studied the process, and when it came time to make a vote, I don’t think anyone voted along racial lines, because I don’t think it’s a racial issue. They voted 7-0. I mean, it was — everybody thought it was the best thing to do for the city, for the people, and to get the city of New Orleans back on track.

AMY GOODMAN: Kali Akuno, it was seven-to-zero. It was a unanimous vote. Can you talk about why you were there, why you want to stop the demolition of these 4,500 housing units, the four housing projects of New Orleans?

KALI AKUNO: If I can, I’d like to correct one point that Mr. Howard just made. The woman who was tasered and who went into a seizure never made it inside. She was outside. And she was tasered in the back, unaware. She was one of the hundreds of people who were trying to get inside at that particular point and was omitted from coming. It had nothing to do with seats being available or anything of that nature. They made that decision to cut that off.

Now, in terms of myself being there, my interest is basically trying to — you know, for lack of a better term, Amy — stop this neoliberal destruction that we see taking place in New Orleans and the complete privatization of all of the different services within the city, housing being, I think, the most critical of them, public housing being kind of the cornerstone of that. But there’s an affordable housing crisis in New Orleans, of which the public housing is just one particular element of it. It’s the most critical element, because public housing will stabilize rents in New Orleans. And folks should know their rents have gone up three times since the storm, and it’s basically pricing, you know, working people and African people, on the whole, out of the city. But this is just one particular piece of this whole program.

Public hospitals are also being shut down and set to be demolished and destroyed in New Orleans. And they’ve systematically dismantled the public education system and beginning demolition on many of the schools in New Orleans — that’s on the agenda right now — and trying to totally — excuse me, totally turn that system over to a charter and a voucher system, to privatize and just kind of really go forward with a major experiment, which was initially laid out by the Heritage Foundation and other neoconservative think tanks shortly after the storm. So this is just really the fulfillment of this program.

And I think — you know, I always want to call people’s attention back to the statements that Baker made shortly after the storm, that we finally cleaned up public housing; you know, we couldn’t do it, but God did. This is just really the fulfillment of that program.

AMY GOODMAN: He was a state legislator, a Louisiana state legislator who said that.

KALI AKUNO: He was a state — yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask Howard Robertson: why do you think this is a good thing, the destruction of the 4,500 units of public housing?

HOWARD ROBERTSON: Yeah, let me explain this, because I think this is really important. Prior to the storm, I think everyone in HUD was attempting to close down the public housing and build new housing prior to the storm. It had nothing to do with the storm.

And I think everyone will agree that — we had the St. Thomas housing project, that was — there was probably a murder there at least once a week. There was somebody shot there almost every day. Drug dealing was rampant. Half of the buildings were boarded up. And a lot of it has nothing to do with the residents that live there. You know, the drug dealers come in, use the projects for a breeding area. Now, when they tore down the St. Thomas housing project, they built — and I say “they,” I mean the government built — new townhouses that blend in very well with the neighborhood. The same residents moved back in. It was much, you know, nicer housing. It’s all clean, it’s all fresh, it’s all new, where the old public housing was boarded up, graffiti everywhere. It was —- I just think it’s a higher quality of living for everyone. And they’ve done this with two of the projects already and have made tremendous success.

I know it’s going to take years to get this done, and everyone is worried about stabilizing rents, because rents have skyrocketed since the storm. It’s hard for anybody to find a place to rent now, without paying at least double what they did prior to the storm.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But I’d like to ask Kali Akuno: but isn’t the number of low— income units that will result from this far lower than what existed under currently with these public housing units?

KALI AKUNO: Yes, it’s far lower. And to go back to the St. Thomas example, it was falsely stated that the same residents moved back in. Some of the residents moved back in, but the vast majority of them were displaced and put on Section 8 and scattered throughout the city. That’s the same process by which they’re proposing now with all the developments, but particularly with the Lafitte and the St. Bernard, this whole notion of a mixed-income, you know, neighborhood, which is basically just going to scatter working-class people all throughout the city on primarily probably Section 8 vouchers, even if those are allowed to continue in a number of different ways.

And people are having a hard time in New Orleans right now, who are on those, finding places to rent, because they’re basically being discriminated. Folks don’t want people who have been stigmatized as being from public housing there. And the same thing which is going on with the vouchers right now. So people have vouchers, but because of that, they’re not being — you know, they’re not finding places to be able to use them or to exercise them, and not finding, you know, rental units.

So this whole mixed-income notion, you know, it’s really more of a notion which is protecting other interests, other than African and working-class interests in the city. So it may work fine for some folks to deal with certain aspects that they find undesirable in the community, but it’s not going to really work for the residents who are being displaced and then, you know, really have very few options as to where they can go, particularly right now with the housing shortage and the housing crisis in New Orleans.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting that for the first time in the last election, the New Orleans City Council was voted — is now a majority-white City Council. But I wanted to end with Sess4-5. You grew up in public housing in New Orleans. What are your plans now? It was a unanimous vote. They say that the public housing units, as they stand now, will be destroyed in New Orleans. What are you planning to do as a community activist?

SESS4-5: Myself, I’m going to continue to fight. We don’t honor or validate the decision made by the City Council. We think it was illegal, and we’re going to go to, you know, court and file a lawsuit against those guys and just keep continuing to fight. And they had a number of people asking for, you know, a sixty-day moratorium. You know, Nancy Pelosi, a lot of people sent, you know, letters to the President. You know, Obama and Edwards even stood out, you know, on this issue. And just the whole proceedings was illegal by locking, you know, the people out of — locking people out from having access to even enter the building and speak their piece. So a lot of those things that transpired today — yesterday were illegal. And so, we don’t honor that vote or that decision. We don’t validate that in any shape or form. And so, we’re just going to continue on in using our resistance measures and galvanizing the people and mobilizing the people. And just like we got a lot of national attention on it, we’re going to keep pressing this issue. And it’s not over. That’s my biggest pledge, is to let the people know it’s not over.

AMY GOODMAN: Sess4-5, I want to thank you for being with us, a community activist; Kali Akuno, the head of the People’s Hurricane Fund; also, Howard Robertson, former SWAT commander in New Orleans. Also, special thank you to Jacquie Soohen, Mavis Yorks, Broderick Webb and Luisa Danta and Michael Boedigheimer of JoLu Productions for providing us with video footage from New Orleans, Jacquie Soohen of Big Noise Films, and to WLAE, the Public Broadcasting in New Orleans for hosting our guests today.

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